Despite a major state regulatory overhaul in 2003 and a Portland Air Toxics Solutions project from 2009-2011, the State of Oregon and the Portland Metro region have disturbingly toxic air. Reform efforts have been few and far between as the air toxics issue has largely been swept under the rug. The current Cleaner Air Oregon effort could result in some important system reforms by the end of 2017, but it will take a while to find out how successful it will be. However, reform at the state level is not the only opportunity for Oregon communities ready to take action to improve air quality.
Oregon Revised Statute § 468A.105 allows the for creation of a regional air quality control authority in an contiguous area with a population of “at least 130,000 and consisting of two or more counties or parts of counties, two or more cities, or any combination thereof, or any county and a city or cities within the county.” Local and regional air authorities are common in many areas in the United States. Both Washington and California have regional air authorities. Even Oregon has a regional air authority — the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency — that was established in 1967 before the passage of the Clean Air Act and the establishment of Oregon’s modern air quality program. As far as local regulations go, Louisville, Kentucky’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program has been tremendously successful at reducing industrial air pollution.
A Portland Area Regional Air Authority?
In Oregon, the Portland Metro region has the highest risk to the population from air toxics due to concentrated industry, high levels of construction, higher car and truck traffic, and a very unique airshed. In 2005, the EPA listed the Portland metro area as one of the most at risk places in the entire country for cancer caused by air toxics.
After Portland began to receive national attention for its poor air quality, the State of Oregon convened the Portland Air Toxics Solutions project in order analyze the causes of air pollution and recommend action to improve air quality. After two years of meetings and study, the Portland Air Toxics Solutions Advisory Committee released a report. This report analyzed the sources of Portland’s air toxics problems (based primarily on modeling data), the disproportionate impact air pollution has on low-income residents and people of color, and created five priority categories for action: residential wood combustion, cars and trucks, heavy duty vehicles, construction equipment, and industrial metals facilities. However, the project ran out of money before new regulations and actions to curtail air pollution were advanced. As such, what could have been an opportunity to clean Portland’s air became a process resulting in a report and no action.
In February 2016, data generated through Forest Service moss studies and subsequent air monitoring popularized the understanding that Oregon has a serious air toxics problem. In the wake of his revelation, local governments began to seek answers. On February 18, 2016, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown with the following message:
The recent discovery of dangerously high concentrations of cadmium, arsenic and other toxic heavy metals in Portland-metropolitan area neighborhoods is a cause of serious concern. What is even more disconcerting is that the presence of these metals and other air toxics in the Portland area has been recognized and well-documented by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for many years, but no action has been taken to curb these dangerous emissions. Multnomah County participated in the Portland Air Toxics Solutions Advisory Committee with the expectation that actions would be forthcoming to protect public health from sources of air toxics. In 2011 Multnomah County called on the state to adopt rules that would protect the public from area source polluters, but our calls for regulation were met with inaction. Should this inaction persist at the state level, it is our intent to explore options to establish a local Portland metropolitan-area regional air pollution authority pursuant to the provisions of ORS 468A.105.
True to their word, the City of Portland and Multnomah County are exploring options to create a local air authority should the state again fail to address air toxics concerns.